Dutch state and water companies in court for cut-offs from water in the homes of children

The Dutch State and public drinking water companies Dunea and PWN stood before the court in The Hague today in the so-called ‘water case’. Defence for Children and the Dutch Section for the International Commission of Jurists (NJCM) summoned the water companies to court because they cut off families with children, even babies, from drinking water when the water bill has not been paid. We also sued the State, because the State knows this and wrongly takes no action to ensure that every child in the Netherlands has access to sufficient water. The PILP-NJCM is assisting the NJCM and Defence for Children together with the law firm De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek.

The Background

According to Defence for Children and the NJCM, cut-offs from water in homes of children violate international children’s rights and human rights. Cut-offs often affect children growing up in poverty. A study by the Children’s Ombudsman shows that 1 in 5 children in poverty have been cut off from electricity or water at some time. Single-parent families are particularly affected by ‘water poverty’. These are children who are already extra vulnerable due to the stressful and uncertain circumstances in which they grow up.

Based on the UN Children’s Rights Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights, every child has an unconditional and independent right to water. This means that governments must ensure that every child has access to drinking water, even if their parents cannot pay the bill. Children bear the brunt of water cut-offs, even though they are not responsible for the unpaid water bill and the resulting debt. Water cut-off is unhealthy, painful and stigmatizing.

Harmful consequences

Water is a basic need and essential for children to live and develop healthily. The coronavirus outbreak has also shown that clean water and hygiene measures are vital. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each person needs 50 to 100 liters of water per day to meet basic needs and prevent very serious health problems. No access to (clean) water also causes hygiene problems and embarrassment for girls who menstruate, for example. A lack of water can also have an impact on children’s mental development and maturity. Think of the inability to make formula for babies or children who cannot attend school due to illness. Some children are afraid to go to school because they have not been able to wash themselves.

Protect children

Mariëlle Bahlmann, legal advisor on juvenile law at Defence for Children: “Water is indispensable for the life and health of a child. Yet the Dutch government and public water companies, such as Dunea and PWN, refuse to stop shutting off water to families. Children need extra protection because of their vulnerability. We therefore ask the court to stop disconnecting children from water as a result of non-payment. The government must take action. There are other ways to ensure that parents pay the bill, without violating the rights of children.”

In violation of international rights

Merel Hendrickx, employed lawyer at PILP-NJCM: “When children are cut off from water, this constitutes impermissible discrimination with regard to their right to water. It deprives children of their right to the best possible health. Water companies do not check for families with children when they disconnect households from water. The government is not protecting children from disconnections, but rather allows them to do so. This is contrary to children’s rights and human rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Closure Policy

Concrete figures on the number of cut-offs are lacking, but an estimated 500 to 750 families with children are disconnected from water each year. About 80 percent are reconnected within 24 hours. They make payment arrangements with the water companies, for example. However, there is no visibility into the remaining 20 percent. Some families are without tap water for months. Because of the coronavirus, households are not being disconnected from water now. Nevertheless, the water companies have already announced that they will start disconnecting again when the corona measures are over.

Households that are cut off from the water can receive a water bag with 12 liters of water per person to get through the first four days. A child cut off from the water will have access to 3 liters of water per day in that case. That is far below the 50 to 100 liters of water that each person needs per day according to the WHO. The fact that there are free water taps in the Netherlands is not a solution for children who are cut off from water in their homes.

Split payment and delivery of water

According to Defence for Children and the NJCM, the fact that access to sufficient clean drinking water is a child’s right does not mean that water should be free. Payment and delivery can be split. The water supply can remain available when children are involved, while the claim of the water company against the parent(s) remains. After all, this already happens with vulnerable consumers with serious health risks, for example pregnant women, who would otherwise also have been cut off from the water. The water companies are obliged, on the grounds of the best interests of the child, to check whether one or more children live at the address they are disconnecting. According to Defence for Children and the NJCM, this does not violate privacy laws.

Judgment follows around 6 April

In her closing remarks, the president of the court indicated that it is now up to the court to determine whether the current system works well in light of the applicable child and human rights treaties. The court is expected to need six weeks to reach a decision. So we expect this around April 6.

Read more about the right to water here. Here you can read the summons and pleading note (in dutch).

For more information, see the Defence for Children website here.